Coming up with winning ways to fill your kids’ lunchboxes can prove tricky. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, packing the same old things day in, day out – and it’s even easier to reach for pre-packaged choices at the supermarket that save time but cost the earth. Worse still, all those mini packets and pouches cost the planet too, with many of them containing plastics that can’t be recycled, and the rest clogging up our weekly recycling bins.
So it’s an all-round win to ditch the packets in favour of these healthier, more economical lunchbox fillers that you can quickly prep and the kids can quickly get to grips with at lunchtime.
Want even more healthy lunch inspiration? Learn how to pack a healthy lunch and get more advice on sugar, salt and portion sizes with our easy-to-follow guide. You can also find more kids' recipes for every occasion in our family hub.
1. Fresh fruit hacks
Forget buying expensive and sad little bags of pre-cut apple – slice and core your own, then put it back together as a whole and tie a rubber band around it. This discourages browning and keeps the slices juicy, and reduces waste by encouraging your kids to eat more than a couple of bites. Want to get your kids to eat more fruit while cutting costs? Slash your spending by looking out for fresh fruit on offer, freezing any surplus, buying what’s in season and supplementing with frozen and tinned varieties (in juice, not sugary syrup).
2. Pack your own yogurt
Here's a good way to use up bottom-of-the-fruit-bowl ripe fruit or good-value frozen berries – blend or mash up your own simple fruit purée, then swirl into plain yogurt for a quick and easy waste-not-want-not alternative to pricey cartoon-pot yoghurts. You’ll cut plastic waste and avoid the added sugar in many packaged alternatives. Investing in your own reusable pouches means you can make simple yogurts (or smoothies) in bulk and always have a stash in the freezer ready to go. The pouches also keep the contents of lunchboxes cool while they're defrosting gradually between morning register and lunch.
Get into the habit of freezing the last leftover bagel, pitta, tortilla wrap or slice of bread in the packet, so that you can ring the changes some days without having to buy several different varieties of bread each week. This way you get to vary between pinwheel wraps, club sandwiches or cookie-cutter shapes to keep things interesting without blowing the weekly food budget in the bakery section of the supermarket. If your child turns their nose up at crusts, cut them off then freeze and save for breadcrumbs or croutons. (Side note: leftover wraps can also be repurposed as better-for-them, thrifty tortilla chips. Just snip them into triangles with kitchen scissors and griddle briefly to serve with hummus for dipping.)
4. Homemade snacks
Find a local supplier of bulk grocery staples that you can weigh out yourself at the store to take home in minimal packaging. Buy dried fruit, mini pretzels, nut-free granola and the like to store in jars at home and decant into food containers for lunches, and you’ll do away with all those panic purchases of overpriced, individually wrapped little kids’ snack bags.
In the same vein, forego expensive packets of popcorn for your own homemade version that’s easy to store and even easier to make. Add dried fruit to the popcorn mix for bonus variety and nutrition and to make pricier dried fruit go further.
If your kids like little pots of edamame beans (we call them popping peas in our house), seek out a bulk bag in the freezer section – you’ll get five times as many as you would if you picked up a pricey individual pot out of convenience.
5. Italian-inspired ideas
When it comes to waste-not-want-not and repurposing leftovers from family meals, Italian home cooks really know how to rip it up and start again. Make extra portions of your favourite pasta salad or simple pizza then serve the surplus the next day as instant, thrifty lunchbox fillers. Bits and pieces from the fridge can be repurposed into a frittata (try this easy pea frittata which uses leftover cooked pasta shapes and frozen peas).
If you make double portions of risotto one night, it can get a second lease of life in a lunchbox as bite-sized arancini. Follow our recipe for Margherita risotto balls as a guide, starting at Step 3 to make the arancini.
6. Chocolates and sweet treats
Save pounds by making your own stash of chocolate-covered rice cakes rather than paying the massive mark-up for individual packets. Just buy rice cakes in bulk, dip in melted dark chocolate and store in an airtight tin for a cheaper – and lighter – taste of chocolate, free from excess costly plastic wrap. You can also buy mini pretzels or crackers in bulk to half dip in melted chocolate (and funfetti if you like).
Make your own chocolate cookies, too, to store in the freezer and add to lunchboxes as needed. You’ll spend far less making your own in bulk than shelling out for individual shop-bought versions, and you can freeze the dough (either baked or uncooked) to make it go much further and avoid the whole lot being eaten in one sitting.
7. Dips and nibbles
Don’t overlook the tins in your storecupboard for cheap and cheerful lunchbox salads on standby. Cost-cutting tinned white beans and chickpeas form the basis of this lunchbox-friendly smashed bean dip, perfect for popping in a pot with crudités as a hummus alternative. Or for a simple, thrifty and nutritious lunchbox filler, mix drained canned tuna and butter beans, then liven it up with a few snipped leftover herbs and a squeeze of lemon – plus a bit of chopped cucumber or stray tomato from the fridge.
8. Soups & stews
Invest in a small Thermos and start giving your kids cheap and cheerful soup for lunch. Soup is nutritious, satisfying and comes in endless varieties – kids will enjoy adding garnishes to theirs from their lunchbox, such as a spoonful of plain yogurt from from a storage container or a sprinkle of grated cheese. Either cook in batches for the freezer, make a ladle or two extra at dinnertime to siphon off into flasks for the next day, or raid the fridge for wilting ingredients and leftovers to repurpose into something lovely. Try bright green pea and lettuce soup (to use up over-the-hill salad leaves), tinned chickpea, barley and butter bean soup from your fridge and storecupboard, or every child’s favourite, tomato soup.
9. Homemade crisps
With just two ingredients – a sweet potato and olive oil – these baked crisps couldn’t be simpler. Why spend money on processed packets of crisps when you can make your own healthier alternative for tomorrow’s lunch in the time it takes the kids to learn tonight’s spellings? Sprinkle with a little salt,e to mimic shop-bought Ready Salted.
10. Infused fruit water
Ditch costly packaged drinks in disposable little bottles or cartons with non-biodegradable straws – instead, make your own fruit-infused tap water in a reusable flask and you’ll make huge savings for both your purse and the planet. Tap water is bottomless and free, and gives your kids all the hydration they need. Jazz it up with a few odds and ends from the fruit bowl or herb garden and let the kids experiment to find their new favourites.
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What are your kids' favourite lunchbox snacks? Leave a comment below...